Operation Bagration: The Death of Army Group Center

The Red Army on the Eastern Front was not obliging the Wehrmacht in 1944. The Red Army usually did limited operations during the winter snows and spring mud, and this gave the Germans time to dig in and reorganize. But the winter and spring of 1944 were different, very different, particularly for Army Groups North and South.

In the previous six months, Army Group North was forced to lift the two year long siege of Leningrad and was driven back to the Baltic States. And Von Manstein’s Army Group South was chased almost all the way out of the Ukraine in a series of surprisingly effective and overwhelming Soviet offensives. Only the intervention of panzer formations from Army Group Center stabilized the front. The Abwehr, or German Intelligence, thought that the Soviets would continue in the south, so the panzers stayed there. The Abwehr and German High Command were distracted by Soviet deception operations, and the Allied landings in France which were just 1000 miles from Berlin. The nearest Soviets were 1200 miles away and they were opposite Army Group Center, in the very defensible terrain of the trackless forests and swamps of Byelorussia.

But this was only defensible against the Red Army of 1941, 1942, or even 1943. The Red Army of 1944 was a new animal. It finally had the equipment, staff proficiency, specialized training, and mobile logistics to put their “Deep Operations” doctrine into practice. Of which, Von Manstein in the Ukraine was the full dress rehearsal.

Deep Operations was the standard Soviet Doctrine since the mid-30s, but Stalin’s purge of 90% of the officer corps in 1937, the calamitous losses in Finland in 1940 and the German invasion in 1941/42 meant that they had to resort to massed tank and human wave attacks to make up for the lack of leadership and trained manpower. It took three years for the talented survivors, such as Zhukov, Konev, Rokossovsky, Vasilevsky and others to rebuild. By 1944, that situation was rectified.

Deep Operations was the logical end state of JFC Fuller’s influential “Breakthrough” theory during the interwar period. DO relies on specialized troops, with massed rifle and artillery breaking through a defensive line, followed by local heavy tank formations to confirm the penetration. Then this penetration was exploited by huge tank, mechanized, cavalry, or elite Guards armies (mounted in American Lend Lease trucks) who attacked deep operational objectives to cut off and encircle German forces. German pockets of resistance were bypassed. Deep Operations has been likened to a Russian matryoshka doll where a small encirclement is then encircled by a larger one, and then a larger one, and so on, until the offensive culminated. (Glantz, “When Titans Clashed”) The Soviet summer offensive in Byelorussia was the ultimate expression of Deep Operations.

Marshall Zhukov launched Operation Bagration on 22 June 1944, and fell upon an unsuspecting Army Group Center. The penetrations were immediate. Although some panzer formations from the South attempted counterattacks that resulted in apocalyptic tank battles, the Germans never recovered. Hitler declared every city in the area a fortress to be defended to the last man, so the retreating German commanders just avoided them in their quest to escape the overlapping layers of encirclement.

It didn’t help. By August the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw and German East Prussia, Army Group North was cut off in Courland, Army Group South was cut off in the Ukraine, and Army Group Center ceased to exist. The German army lost 500,000 men and 4000 tanks and assault guns that could not be replaced. 57,000 German prisoners were marched through Red Square, and then the Soviets made a point to wash the streets afterwards.

The Soviets were now much closer to Berlin than the Allies were.

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